04 July 2021

Help Wanted: a humble prophet

NB. Originally preached in 2009 while I was subbing for a friar on vacation. . .

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur, Forth Worth, TX

Prophets are a cheap and abundant source of nonsense these days. Every sort of weirdo has a theory, a revelation, a scheme, or a vision from Beyond. No wonder, really. Can we say that the fabric of our faith is as tightly knitted as it needs to be to keep us cozy in this winter of spiritual chaos? When the foundations of all that we believe start to throw us about, most any voice in the racket sounds like a voice of authority. Persistent sexual scandals, financial malfeasance, abuse of power, dissent and rebellion—and all of these just within the Church!—all of these potholes on the Way jolt our certainties and sometimes they even bump us into despair. In these moments of upheaval there always seems to be a guru, a savior, or a prophet just outside our purview who's all too willing to speak up and promise to lead us back to whatever it is we think we need to be safe—health, wealth, sanity, wholeness, or holiness. Usually, if we succumb to fear or anger or the need for a show of defiance, and we buy the snake-oil, usually we end up defeated and more beat-up than when we begin. Beware self-anointed prophets bearing pricey prophecy! Being “hard of face and obstinate of heart” is easy. Humility, right reason, and holy obedience is difficult—not impossible!—just very, very difficult.

The prophets that speak to us this morning are well-known and reliable: Ezekiel, Paul, and Christ himself. No doubt they look the part of a prophet, like men who have spent too much time in the deserts of foreign lands. They certainly sound like the prophets we are used to hearing. The self-anointed prophets of postmodern Western culture could be wearing lab coats, three-piece suits, habits or clerics, or even casual sportswear; they could be sporting advanced degrees in physics, medicine, genetics, or theology; they could sound like gurus, even reasonable scientists, hawking new cosmologies, novel technologies, fresh political solutions, or global spiritualities. They can all name our worst fears, our deepest angers, our most pressing anxieties. They can speak a word to calm our stormed tossed spirits. What they cannot and will not name is the Love in our souls. What they do not speak is the Word. They do not and will not say, “Thus says the Lord God...” And these differences make a great deal of difference.

Ezekiel is consumed in the voice of God. Paul is struck blind and pierced by a thorn in his flesh. Jesus is spurned in his own hometown, ridiculed as no one other than “the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon.” Ezekiel is sent to the rebellious Israelites to reteach the Good News of an ancient love. Paul is sent to the Gentiles with the Good News of the Father's mercy. Jesus is sent to the whole of creation as the Good News himself, the very Incarnate Word of divine love and mercy. All three prophets are sent to accomplish one mission: to speak the Word to God's people, and in so doing, bringing them all back into a covenant; reminding, renewing, and revealing the foundational promises of the Creator.

Look closely at what the prophets in scripture actually do and do not do. They do not create. They point to the Creator. They do not invent or innovate. They point to the Inventor, the Innovator Himself. They do not preach revolution and rebellion for the sake of novelty. They call us to revolutionize our hard faces and cold hearts. They rouse us to rebel against the slavery of alien philosophies and foreign gods. They do not urge God's people to abandon His promises of liberation in favor of worldly guarantees, the empty pledges that prop us up with domination, wealth, prestige, violence, and oppression. God's anointed prophets give voice to and work for the least against the most, for the worst against the best, for the lowest against the highest. When the most, the best, and the highest are where they are b/c they have stepped on and broken the least, the worst, and the lowest, God's anointed prophet will speak His Word of justice and demand a righteous revolution. Not something as mundane and temporary as a government program or a social action agency. Not something as ultimately useless as a financial entitlement or a paper-weight patch on the justice system. God's anointed prophet will first demand that the hard face and cold heart of injustice be melted in the overwhelming Love that gave His creation life! Then this prophet will say, “Thus says the Lord God: you will not treat my beloved children as things, as slaves; you will not use my children as disposable means to your selfish ends; you will not love simply for worldly gain, pretend faith for public praise, nor spread hope to hide your oppression. You love b/c I loved you first!”

As men and women baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have vowed to be faithful to God, just to our neighbors, hopeful in crisis, loving to all, joyful even as we weep, and as eager to show mercy as we are to seek mercy. The key to our lives as prophets is not scientific novelty, theological innovation, philosophical nuance, or even spiritual practice. Our prophetic key is humility—the certain and daily-lived knowledge that we are creatures of a loving God, wholly dependent, utterly reliant on the Love that gave us and gives us life. There is no other source of identity for us. No other means of doing what we have vowed our lives to do. Ezekiel is consumed in the voice of God. Paul is plagued by a thorn in his flesh. Jesus himself is rejected by his hometown folks. Their humility fuels a righteous fire for God's justice not a self-righteous grudge against the status-quo. Self-anointed prophets in lab coats, suits, or vestments might tempt us with a genetic or economic or religious utopia, but we know that any prophet who will not and cannot say, “Thus says the Lord God...,” we know that they are false prophets.

Our Father's gifts are sufficient for us, for our power as His prophets is made perfect in humility. 

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